Silent Magic

Source: Ivan Butler, Silent Magic: Rediscovering the Silent Film Era (London: Columbus Books, 1987), pp. 27-31

Text: During the early part of the 1920s my own cinema-going was restricted by the confinements of boarding-school during term time, and in the holidays (to a lesser extent) by the fact that at least in our neighbourhood ‘the pictures’, though tolerated and even enjoyed, were still regarded as a poor and slightly dubious relative of the live theatre, the picture gallery and the concert hall. Their passage towards respectability was not helped by scandals in Hollywood such as the ‘Fatty Arbuckle Affair’. I can still recollect the atmosphere of something sinister and shuddersome that surrounded the very word ‘Arbuckle’ long after the trials (and complete acquittal) of the unfortunate comedian, even though my innocent ideas of what actually took place in that San Francisco apartment during the lively party on 5 September 1921 were wholly vague and inaccurate – if tantalizing. In his massive history of American cinema, The Movies, Richard Griffith writes, “During the course of the First World War the middle class, by imperceptible degrees, became a part of the movie audience.’ ‘lmperceptible’ might be regarded as the operative word. However, when it comes to paying surreptitious visits a great many obstacles can be overcome by a little guile and ingenuity, and I don’t remember feeling particularly deprived in that respect. I managed to see most of what I wanted to see.

Our ‘local’ was the cosy little Royal in Kensington High Street, London – a bus journey away. The Royal has been gone for half a century, its demise hastened by the erection of a super-cinema at the corner of Earl’s Court Road. To the faithful it was known not as the Royal but as the Little Cinema Under the Big Clock in the High Street. The clock itself is gone now, but on a recent visit I though I could spot its former position by brackets that remain fixed high in the brick wall. The entrance to the cinema was through a passageway between two small shops, discreetly hidden except for two frames of stills and a small poster. A pause at the tiny box-office, a turn to the left, a step through a swing door and a red baize curtain, and one was in the enchanted land – not, however, in sight of the screen, because that was flush with the entrance, so you saw a grossly twisted pulsating picture which gradually formed itself into shape as, glancing backwards so as not to miss anything, you groped your way up to your seat. To the right of the screen was the clock in a dim red glow, an indispensable and friendly feature of nearly all cinemas in those days, and a warning – as one was perhaps watching the continuous programme through for the second run, that time was getting on. Prices were modest: from 8d (3p), to 3s (15p). This was fairly general in the smaller halls; cheaper seats were available in some, particularly in the provinces, others – slightly more imposing demanded slightly more for the back rows, possibly with roomier seats and softer upholstery, but such elitism was not, to my memory, practised at the Royal.

Projection was to our unsophisticated eyes generally good, preserving the often marvellously crisp and well graded black-and-white photography. Programmes were changed twice weekly (but the cinemas were closed on Sundays, at any rate during the early years) and continuous from about 2 o’clock. They consisted as a rule of a newsreel such as the Pathé Gazette with its proudly crowing cockerel (silent, of course), a two-reel comedy (sometimes the best part of the entertainment), Eve’s Film Review, a feminine-angled magazine the high spot of which was the appearance of Felix the Cat walking, and, finally, the feature film. This was before the days when the double-feature programme became general. Somewhere between the items there would be a series of slide advertisements – forerunner of Messrs Pearl and Dean – which always seemed to include a glowing picture of Wincarnis among its local and ‘forthcoming’ attractions. The average moviegoer of those days (much as today, though perhaps to a greater extent) went to see the star of a film rather than the work of its director; Gish rather than Griffith, Bronson more than Brenon, Bow more than Badger, Swanson more than DeMille though as the years went by the names of the directors became more familiar and their importance more fully recognized. Criticism was often surprisingly informed and uncompromising.

Musical accompaniment at the Royal was provided by a piano during the less frequented hours, supplanted by a trio who arrived at a fixed time regardless of what was happening on the screen. I remember well the curious uplift we felt as the three musicians arrived, switched on their desk lights, tuned up and burst into sound, perhaps at a suitable moment in the story, perhaps not. Meanwhile the pianist (always, I recollect, a lady) packed up and left for a well deserved rest and cup of tea. The skill of many of these small cinema groups, even in the most modest conditions, was remarkable; their ability to adapt, week after week, often with two programmes a week and with little or no rehearsal, to events distortedly depicted a few feet before them, was beyond praise. The old joke about William Tell for action, ‘Hearts and Flowers’ for sentiment, the Coriolan overture for suspense and that’s the lot, was an unfair and unfunny gibe.

I have described the old Kensington Royal in some detail as it was fairly typical of modest cinemas everywhere in Britain at that time. Most were at least reasonably comfortable and gave good value for little money, maintaining decent standards of presentation. Very few deserved the derogatory term ‘flea-pit’, though ‘mouse parlour’ might sometimes have been an accurate description. On one occasion the scuttering of mice across the bare boards between the rows of seats rather disturbed my viewing of a W.C. Fields film (Running Wild, I think it was), though the print was so villainously cut and chopped about that the story was difficult to follow in any case. But such cases were infrequent. I have forgotten the name of the cinema, and the town shall remain anonymous.

Sometimes, in early days, films would be shown in old disused churches, and it is supposedly through this that the employment of an organ for accompaniment in larger cinemas became general. The first exponent was probably Thomas L. Talley, who in 1905 built a theatre with organ specifically for the screening of movies in Los Angeles. It was soon discovered that such an organ could be made to do many things an orchestra could not: it could fit music instantaneously to changes of action, and simulate doorbells, whistles, sirens and bird-song, as well as many percussive instruments. On one later make of organ an ingenious device of pre-set keys made available no fewer than thirty-nine effects and even emotions, including Love (three different kinds), Anger, Excitement, Storm, Funeral, Gruesome, ‘Neutral’ (three kinds), and FULL ORGAN. This last effect, with presumably all the above, plus Quietude, Chase, China, Oriental, Children, Happiness, March, Fire, etc. all sounding together, must have been awesome indeed. […] Before long the organ interlude became an important part of any programme, as the grandly ornate and gleaming marvel rose majestically from the depths of the pit in a glowing flood of coloured light.

Nothing, however, could equal the effect of a large orchestra in a major cinema, which could be overwhelming. The accompaniment (of Carl Davis conducting the Thames Silents Orchestra) to the 1983 screening of The Wind, for instance, was a revelation that will never be forgotten by those who had never before ‘heard’ a silent film in all its glory, particularly at the climax of the storm.

Admittedly, at times, particularly from the front seats, the presence of a busy group of players could be distracting; their lights would impinge on the screen, their busy fiddle bows and occasionally bobbing heads would make concentration on what the shadows behind them were up to a little difficult. In general, however, their mere presence, apart from the music, added immeasurably to the sense of occasion and until one got used to it the cold vacancy below the screen in the early days of sound had a chilling effect. Those cinema musicians are surely remembered with warm affection and regard by all of us who were fortunate enough to have heard them.

[…]

In these days of multi-screen conglomerates it is difficult to imagine the awe and excitement that could be aroused by the greatest of the old-style movie palaces; the thick-piled carpets into which our feet sank, the powdered flunkies and scented sirens who took our tickets with a unique mixture of welcoming smile, condescending grace and unwavering dignity, the enormous chandelier-lit entrance halls, the statues, the coloured star portraits, the playing fountains, the rococo kiosks – all leading through cathedral-dim corridors to the dark, perfumed auditorium itself, the holy of holies where we would catch our first glimpse of Larry Semon plastering Fatty Arbuckle with bags of flour.

Prices, of course, were rather grander than in the smaller, humbler houses, roughly (for variations were wide) from about 1s 3d (6p) or 2s 4d (12p) to 8s 6d (43p) or even 11s 6d (57p); but once you had paid your tribute to the box-office every effort was made to see that you felt you were welcome, were getting your money’s worth and were someone of importance – that this whole occasion was especially for you.

Comments: Ivan Butler (1909-1998), after a career as an actor, went on to become a notable writer on the art and history of cinema. His Silent Magic is a particularly evocative memoir of the silent films he could remember when in his eighties. The American comedian Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was accused of the rape and manslaughter minor actress and model Virginia Rappe. Though acquitted, thanks to lurid reporting his career was ruined. The scandal helped lead to the formation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America to self-govern the American motion picture industry. The Eve’s Film Review cinemagazine was produced by Pathé, who also made Pathé Gazette. Thames Silents was the name given to a series of theatrical screenings and broadcasts of restored silent films with orchestral scores by Carl Davis, produced by Photoplay Productions and Thames Television over 1980-1990.

Dr Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon

A view of Philip James de Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon (1782), British Museum (via Wikipedia)

Source: Ephraim Hardcastle [W.H. Pyne], extracts from chapter ‘Dr Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon’, in Wine and Walnuts, or, After dinner chit-chat (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1823), pp. 284-290, 295-298, 302-304

Text: The stage on which the Eidophusikon was represented, was little more than six feet wide, and about eight feet in depth; yet such was the painter’s knowledge of effect and scientific arrangement, and the scenes which he described were so completely illusive, that the space appeared to recede for many miles, and his horizon seemed as palpably distant from the eye, as the extreme termination of the view would appear in nature.

The opening subject of the Eidophusikon represented the view from the summit of One-tree Hill, in Greenwich Park, looking up the Thames to the Metropolis; on one side, conspicuous upon its picturesque eminence, stood Flamstead House; and below, on the right, the grand mass of building, Greenwich Hospital, with its imposing cupolas, cut out of pasteboard, and painted with architectural correctness. The large groups of trees formed another division, behind which were the towns of Greenwich and Deptford, with the shore on each side stretching to the metropolis, which was seen in its vast extent, from Chelsea to Poplar. Behind were the hills of Hampstead, Highgate, and Harrow; and the intermediate space was occupied by the flat stage, as the pool or port of London, crowded with shipping, each mass of which being cut out in pasteboard, and receding in size by the perspective of their distance. The heathy appearance of the fore-ground was constructed of cork, broken into the rugged and picturesque forms of a sand-pit, covered with minute mosses and lichens, producing a captivating effect, amounting indeed to reality.

This scene, on the rising of the curtain, was enveloped in that mysterious light which is the precursor of day-break, so true to nature, that the imagination of the spectator sniffed the sweet breath of morn. A faint light appeared along the horizon; the scene assumed a vapourish tint of grey; presently a gleam of saffron, changing to the pure varieties that tinge the fleecy clouds that pass away in morning mist; the picture brightened by degrees; the sun appeared, gilding the tops of the trees and the projections of the lofty buildings, and burnishing the vanes on the cupolas; when the whole scene burst upon the eye in the gorgeous splendour of a beauteous day.

The clouds in every scene had a natural motion, and they were painted in semi-transparent colours, so that they not only received light in front, but, by a greater intensity of the argand lamps, were susceptible of being illuminated from behind. The linen on which they were painted was stretched on frames of twenty times the surface of the stage, which rose diagonally by a winding machine. De Loutherbourg, who excelled in representing the phenomena of clouds, may be said to have designed a series of effects on the same frame; thus, the first gleam of morn led to the succeeding increase of light; and the motion being oblique, the clouds first appeared from beneath the horizon, rose to a meridian, and floated fast or slow, according to their supposed density, or the power of the wind.

To illuminate the interesting scenes for this display of nature, the ingenious projector had constructed his lights to throw their power in front of the scenes; and this plan might be tried with advantage for spectacles, and particular effects at least, on the great stages of our magnificent theatres. The lamps on De Loutherbourg’s stage were above the proscenium, and hidden from the audience, instead of being unnaturally placed as we are accustomed to see them, by which the faces of the performers are illuminated, like Michael Angelo’s Satan, from the regions below; thus throwing on their countenances a preternatural character, in defiance of all their well studied science of facial passion and expression. What painter ever dreamt of inverting the order of nature so entirely as to light the human countenance upwards? And why depart so strangely from truth upon the stage? The expression would be increased tenfold by lighting from above the proscenium. — For how infinitely more impressive is the emotion of the passions, when described with the spacious orbit of the eye in that deep shadow which the grand gusto of the historic style of painting has adopted — the majesty of intellectual intelligence is seen to rest upon the human brow. Nothing can outrage truth, or do so much violence to that delicate expression, which is the soul of acting, when addressed to the philosophical mind, as to view the bold projection of the chin, the subordinate and characteristic prominence of the nose, the upper part of the orbits of the eyes, instead of forming harmonious shadows, glaring in the blaze of stage-lamps, each a separate touch of light. Were the other method adopted for illuminating the stage, the scenes would recede, in their respective distances; the front and most prominent characters would cast a shadow on those in the second ground, and the general effect would assume the superior light and shadow of nature in manifold combinations, such as we behold on the historical groups of the great masters. Why should we continue to tolerate absurdities upon the stage, to the manifest injustice of those fine and masterly traits, as exhibited in the actor’s “anatomy of expression?” which might, but for this, serve as a school for the painter to study the rudiments of rage, anger, terror, guilt, jealousy, and other potent passions operating on the human visage, with that marked expression which the science of certain great actors can personate at will.

Before the line of brilliant lamps, on the stage of the Eidophusikon, were slips of stained glass; yellow, red, green, purple, and blue: by the shifting of which, the painter could throw a tint upon the scenery, compatible with the time of day which he represented, and by a single slip, or their combinations, could produce a magical effect; thus giving a general hue of cheerfulness, sublimity, or awfulness, subservient to the phenomena of his scene. This too might be adopted on the regular stage, were the ingenious machinists of the scene-room to set their wits to work; and at no vast expence, since the improvements of lighting with gas.

[…]

Gainsborough was so wrapt in delight with the Eidophusikon, that for a time he thought of nothing else — he talked of nothing else — and passed his evenings at that exhibition in long succession. Gainsborough, himself a great experimentalist, could not fail to admire scenes wrought to such perfection by the aid of so many collateral inventions. Loutherbourg’s genius was as prolific in imitations of nature to astonish the ear, as to charm the sight. He introduced a new art — the picturesque of sound.

I can never forget the awful impression that was excited by his ingenious contrivance to produce the effect of the firing of a signal of distress, in his sea-storm. That appalling sound, which he that had been exposed to the terrors of a raging tempest could not listen to, even in this mimic scene, without being reminded of the heart-sickening answer, which sympathetic danger had reluctantly poured forth from his own loud gun — a hoarse sound to the howling wind, that proclaimed, “I too, holy Heaven! need that succour I fain would lend!”

De Loutherbourg had tried many schemes to effect this; but none were satisfactory to his nice ear, until he caused a large skin to be dressed into parchment, which was fastened by screws to a circular frame, forming a vast tambourine; to this was attached a compact sponge that went upon a whalebone spring; which,s truck with violence, gave the effect of a near explosion; a more gentle blow, that of a far-off gun; and the reverberation of the sponge produced a marvellous imitation of the echo from to cloud, dying away into silence.

The thunder was no less natural, and infinitely grand: a spacious sheet of thin copper was suspended by a chain, which, shaken by one of the lower corners, produced the distant rumbling, seemingly below the horizon; and as the clouds rolled on, approached nearer and nearer, increasing peal by peal, until, following rapidly the lightning’s zig-zag flash, which was admirably vivid and sudden, it burst in a tremendous crash immediately over-head.

Once, being at the Eidophusikon, with a party of intelligent friends, when this scene was performing over Exeter ‘Change, I had the felicity to experience a most interesting treat. I had often wished for an opportunity to compare the effect of the awful phenomenon — a thunder storm, with this imitative thunder of De Loutherbourg’s. A lady exclaimed, “It lightens!” and, in great agitation, pointed to an aperture that admitted air to the upper seats. The consternation caused by this discovery, induced many to retire to the lobby, some of whom, moved by terror or superstition, observed, “that the exhibition was presumptuous.” We moved to the gallery, and opening a door, stood upon the landing place, where we could compare the real with the artificial storm. When the exhibition was over, and were tired to sup with one of our party, the worthy James Christie, in Pall Mall, we naturally went into the merits of this scenic display; when it was sagely determined, that man was an extraordinary creature, who could create a copy of Nature, to be taken for Nature’s self.

[…]

But the most impressive scene, which formed the finale of the exhibition, was that representing the region of the fallen angels, with Satan arraying his troops on the banks of the Fiery Lake, and the rising of the Palace of Pandaemonium, as described by the pen of Milton. De Loutherbourg had already displayed his graphic powers in his scenes of fire, upon a great scale, at the public theatre — scenes which had astonished and terified [sic] the audience; but in this he astonished himself, — for he had not conceived the power of light that might be thrown upon a scenic display, until he made the experiment on his own circumscribed stage. Here, in the foreground of a vista, stretching an immeasurable length between mountains, ignited from their bases to their lofty summits, with many-coloured flame, a chaotic mass rose in dark majesty, which gradually assumed form until it stood, the interior of a vast temple of gorgeous architecture, bright as molten brass, seemingly composed of unconsuming and unquenchable fire. In this tremendous scene, the effect of coloured glasses before the lamps was fully displayed; which, being hidden from the audience, threw their whole influence upon the scene, as it rapidly changed, now to a sulphurous blue, then to a lurid red, and then again to a pale vivid light, and ultimately to a mysterious combination of the glasses, such as a bright furnace exhibits, in fusing various metals. The sounds which accompanied the wondrous picture, struck the astonished ear of the spectator as no less preternatural; for, to add a more awful character to peals of thunder, and the accompaniments of all the hollow machinery that hurled balls and stones with indescribable rumbling and noise, an expert assistant swept his thumb over the surface of the tambourine, which produced a variety of groans, that struck the imagination as issuing from infernal spirits.

Such was De Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon; and would that it were in being now, when the love of the fine arts has spread in so vast a degree! — that knowledge which would have appreciated its merits having increased a thousand-fold, since the period when the greatest scene-painter in the world was induced to dispose of his wondrous little stage, because the age could not produce amateurs sufficient, after two seasons, to muster an audience to pay for lighting his theatre!

Comments: William Henry Pyne (1769-1843) was a British writer, painter and illustrator, who wrote under the pseudonym Ephraim Hardcastle. The Eidophusikon was the invention of Franco-British artist and scenery designer Philip James de Loutherbourg (1740-1812). It was a form of mechanical theatre, showing landscape pictures whose visual features changed through a system of pulleys, mirrors, coloured glass, with sound effects, though the exact mechanics are not known. There were three versions. The first was exhibited at De Loutherbourg’s home in Lisle Street, Leicester Square, London February-May 1781. The second, with additional scenes introduced, including the ‘Pandaemonium’ sequence, was exhibited January 1872 to some time in 1873. The third, that witnessed by Pyne, opened at Exeter Change on the Strand, London, in 1786. The venture was not a financial success, partly because De Loutherbourg could not keep up with audience demand for new scenes. The invention and its artworks do not survive.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

A Thousand Pities

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance IV: A Thousand Pities’, Close Up vol. I no. 4, October 1927, pp. 60-64

Text: It was the winter’s strangest happiness, coming into mind with autumn’s first dead leaves and forgotten only at the budding of the new green. Its great day brought together by magic a concourse of people to sit in wedding garments at the gate of heaven, blithely chattering until the golden air became moonlight and a breathless waiting for the swish of curtains gliding open upon heaven itself. Sometimes puzzling but always heaven and its inhabitants celestial; save at those moments when one of the blessed, turning from his blissful mystery, came down to the footlights and sang at us, incomprehensible songs that quenched the light and brought strange sad echoes such as we knew on earth. Heaven recovered when the celestial being went back into his place, and was lived in until the end, incalculably far away. And after the end there was a fresh beginning, a short scene made of swift and dreadful moments, charm and mystery and shock, just outside heaven’s closed gates. A little troop of beings, half-earthly, born of the earlier scenes, romped close at hand in a confined space before a facade of earthly houses. Harlequin, lightly leaping, snaky, electric, sweetly-twirling Columbine, lolloping Pantaloon with sad, frightened mouth. Swish-whack. Shocks unfortellable. Bangs of exploding fleas. Ceaseless speechless movement, swift leaping, whirling, staggering, light and heavy together making strange shapes in the diminished light until the immortals vanished and we were down on solid earth with the largefooted policeman, the nursemaid and perambulator and infant, funny and dreadful on a scene where the power of the vanished immortals still worked and brought us joyous moments: the moment of the falling of a house-front, the squashing and the sight, a moment later, of the squashed, flat upon the centre of the stage.

We knew that everything happening after the immortals had vanished was out of place and if the mortals in their foolishness had been all that we saw, the scenes, no matter how short, meaning nothing, would have brought weariness. But we gazed without weariness because we saw somewhere within the stilted speechless pasteboard movements something of the glory that had passed. Our eyes were still full of the last scene in heaven from which the lovely celestials who came down to dance in the street had been created, the opening of the heaven of heavens in the Transformation Scene where everything and everyone had assembled in a single expanded shape, shimmering, flower-like, that slowly moved in changing form and colour, stretching out attention to the uttermost lest some lovely thing be missed. It foretold the end of beauty but was itself endlessly beautiful, holding us to its eternity by its soundlessness. If any part of it had broken into sound, its link with us would have been snapped, its spell broken. Of its moving stillness and our own that it compelled was born something new, a movement of our own small selves. Only because in its continual movement it was silent did it reach the whole small self. It demanded less than the rest of the performance and much more. Taking part in that we had been everything by turns, keyed up to the limit of our green faculties, living rapidly, thinking thoughts, going beyond ourselves, moving now here now there, loving and hating, laughing, shrieking aloud at need. But the appeal of the Transformation Scene was not to single faculties in turn but to all at once, to the whole small spirit gathered at home in itself. Stilled stage, stilled music gave the surrounding conditions.

So with the film, whose essential character is pantomime, that primarily, and anything and everything else incidentally. But primarily pantomime. Vocal sound, always a barrier to intimacy, is destructive of the balance between what is seen and the silently perceiving, co-operating onlooker. It is no accident that the most striking and most popular film success to date is that of a mime. This man was the first to grasp the essential quality of the medium, to see what to do and what to avoid to reach the maximum of collaboration with the onlookers. His technique admits sound, but only of things and that sparingly. Himself and his assistants dispense as far as possible with the appearance of speech. The language of his films is universal. And though the world-wide success of this d’Artagnan of the gutters rests partly upon shameless gaminerie, perpetually defying even the most dignified slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with perpetual custard pie, its securest prop is his unerring art. His use of the film as a medium. Wealth of imaginative invention is held together by simplicity of design, the fullest use is made of the thoughtlike swiftness of movement made possible by the film. His small grotesque figure, whether going with incredible swiftness through its clever, absurd evolutions, or a motionless mask of ever-varying expressiveness, or geometrically in flight down a long vista, was the first to exploit these possibilities. Rudimentary in material, his work is sound in foundation and structure, an advance sample of what the film, as film, can do.

Poetry, epigram, metaphor, chit-chat social, philosophic or scientific are the reactions and afterthought of spiritual experience, are for the stage. And even upon the stage the actual drama moves silently, speech merely noting its movement. The “great dramatic moments” are speechless. The film at its best is all dramatic moment. The film is a spirit and they that worship it must worship it in spirit and in truth. Like the garish Transformation Scene and the debased Harlequinade of the old-fashioned pantomime, the only parts remaining true pantomine, its demands are direct and immediate, at once much more and much less than those of the vocal stage-play. And its preliminary demand is for concentration. Given favourable surrounding conditions for concentration, the film’s powers of making contacts are, so long as it remains consistent with itself, a hundred to the one of the theatre: the powerful actor, the stage play’s single point of contact with the “audience”, with those who are indeed, though not hearers only, throughout the course of the collaboration largely concentrated on listening.

The sounds that have so far been added to the film, of falling rain, buzz and hoot of motors, roll of thunder, pistol-shots and bombs, are sometimes relatively harmless. And if they were an indication of experiment, suggesting that sound is to be tested and used with discrimination, their presence might cease to be disturbing. But they are being introduced not in any spirit of experiment or with any promise of discrimination. They are there because they are easy to produce. More sound is promised as soon as the technical difficulties shall be overcome. The bombs are fore-runners, evidence of a blind move in a wrong direction, in the direction of the destruction of the essential character of the screen-play.

Comments: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves. The performer she refers to is of course Charlie Chaplin.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Joseph Flower, C707/321/1-3, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q: Cinemas while you were still at school?

A: Yes. Now then. This is where the’ fun starts. We had – tickets. Now wait a moment – the shop where I lived was a tailor’s shop of course. Well now in the window we used to display these – advertisement – bills for these different things you see. And – there was – a picture house opened in Shakespeare Street called Hibberts. Well used to get a ticket – given us by – with, you know, with these – chaps that brought the bills , and that entitled you to go in for – abou[t] a penny. And you’d see the whole – programme you see for a penny. Well – we’d take advantage of this and – these fellows – that brought the bills, they weren’t particular just giving you one, they’d give you a dozen, to get rid of ’em. Well we used to dish ’em around to our friends and so on you see. Well we used to go to those pictures, and become a bit of a nuisance sometimes. Used to play – bits of tricks, like everybody else, yes. There was a fellow there that – well of course they were silent pictures of course. And – there was this fellow used to sit behind the curtain – with a – these coconut shells during these – horse – clip-clop, well we should – we should take – get – cut down reeds, open the centres – take all the pith out the centre, and use – hawthorn hips, and – sit over in the balcony over this end and keep – pipping ’em down to him and he’d got a bald head you know and it –

Q: Could you aim straight?

A: Oh yes, hit him plenty of times. ‘Til eventually we got turned out of course. And then – at this particular – picture house, they first started to synchronise a gramaphone [sic] record with the picture. And of course then we changed our seating, from the – balcony onto the front row of all. Now they had this gramaphone [sic] on a stand, and they’d start it off and it was pretty good, for a time it was pretty good. But of course – we could always stretch a hand out and just put a finger on the turn table for a second which would throw the whole thing all – haywire. That went on for a bit and then of course they rumbled us and we were – thrown out.

Q: I should think it was very funny wasn’t it?

A: Well it was to see the picture – you know, going along and then the – all of a sudden the – the sound and the – picture – was all – distorted all sorts. But it – that was a – these were – these are the kind of tricks we used to get up to. We never did any real damage like vandalism, it were just sheer devilment. You see, and it – gradually the – these people that – that run these places, they got to know us and – sometimes they’d let us in and sometimes they’d just say, well now look, let’s have no – bother with you lot today and that kind of thing. There was no real hardship, they didn’t knock us about or anything like that you see.

Q: Was your lot all roughly your age?

A: Oh yes.

Q: Did it have an actual leader or did you all sort of things these things up together?

A: Well, no, there was no leader. It was just a matter of – someone might suggest a new idea you see and – we’d – we should – try it out once and if it was a success well of course that’d carry on ’til we got stopped.

Q: Any other things you can remember like that?

A: Well we’d go to the Albert Hall on a Saturday evening and – I don’t know how much we used to pay there, I don’t know whether it was a penny or tuppence, and – it’d open out – with a – the parson – saying a prayer, and we’d probably sing a hymn. Then the – picture would start. And then –

Q: S[o] this was pictures too was it?

A: This was pictures, yes, on a Saturday evening. And then of course – we should start our little bit of devilment, kicking up noises and things like that, generally trying to upset things and which we in those days thought funny, you see. And this went on for a time until the – we’d get thrown out of there, and – we’d go back the next week and it was all right again, but it – they – they never bore any malice or anything, they just put it down to boys – high spirits, that was all. And of course at the – interval we – we would help, you see, as a kind of a – retribution we would – they used to sell – chocolate, and things like that, and we should – take it round on the trays and – and sell it for them, amongst the – people that were gathered – you know, went to the pictures. But – I think by doing that and – trying to help what we could – part of the – time, they’d – it made up for the devilment and trouble.

Comments: Joseph Flower (1899-?) was one of six children of a Nottingham pavier but was brought up by foster parents and saw little of his own family. He lived in the Sneinton suburb of Nottingham. He was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975). Nottingham’s Albert Hall was a Methodist mission which put on concerts, film screenings and other entertainments. Hibbert’s Pictures operated in Shakespeare Street 1910 to 1920 before becoming the Lounge Picture Theatre. Films synchronised with gramophone recordings (usually to depict a song being sung) were common in the early 1910s but are seldom mentioned in memoir evidence for the period.

Musical Accompaniment

Source: Dorothy Richardson, extract from ‘Continuous Performance II: Musical Accompaniment’, Close Up vol. I no. 2, August 1927, reproduced in James Donald, Anne Friedberg and Laura Marcus (eds.), Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism (London: Cassell, 1998), pp. 162-163

Text: Our first musician was a pianist who sat in the gloom beyond the barrier and played without notes. His playing was a continuous improvisation varying in tone and tempo according to what was going forward on the screen. During the earlier part of the evening he would sometimes sing. He would sing to the sailing by of French chateaux, sotto voce, in harmony with the gently flowing undertone that moved so easily from major to minor and from key to key. His singing seemed what probably it was, a spontaneous meditative appreciation of things seen. For the Gazette he had martial airs, waltzes for aeroplanes. Jigs accompanied the comic interludes and devour low-toned nocturnes the newest creations of fashion. For drama he usually had a leitmotif, borrowed or invented, set within his pattern of sound moving suitably from pianissimo to fortissimo. He could time a passage to culminate and break punctually on a staccato chord at a crisis. This is a crude example of his talent for spontaneous adaptation. As long as he remained with us music and picture were one. If the film were good he enhanced it, heightened its effect of action moving forward for the first time. If it were anything from bad to worst his music helped the onlooker to escape into incidentals and thence into his private world of meditation or of thought.

The little palace prospered and the management grew ambitious. Monthly programmes were issued, refreshments were cried up and down the gangways and perfumed disinfectants squirted ostentatiously over the empty spaces. The pianist vanished and the musical accompaniment became a miniature orchestra, conspicuous in dress clothes and with lights and music stands and scores between the audience and the screen, playing set pieces, for each scene a piece. At each change of scene one tune would give place to another, in a different key, usually by means of a tangle of discords. The total result of these efforts towards improvement was a destruction of the relationship between onlookers and film. With the old unity gone the audience grew disorderly. Talking increased. Prosperity waned. Much advertisement of ‘west-end successes’ pulled things together for a while during which the management aimed still higher. An evening came when in place of the limping duet of violin and piano, several instruments held together by some kind of conducting produced sprightly and harmonious effects. At half-time the screen was curtained leaving the musician’s pit in a semi-darkness where presently wavered a green spot-light that came to rest upon the figure of a handsome young Jew dramatically fronting the audience with violin poised for action. Fireworks. Applause. After which the performance was allowed to proceed. Within a month the attendance was reduced to a scattered few and in due course the hall was ‘closed for decorations’, to reopen some months later ‘under entirely new management’, undecorated and with the old pianist restored to his place. The audience drifted back.

But during the interregnum, and whilst concerted musical efforts were doing their worst, an incident occurred that convinced me that any kind of musical noise is better than none. Our orchestra failed to appear and the pictures moved silently by, life less and colourless, to the sound of intermittent talking and the continuous faint hiss and creak of the apparatus. The result seemed to justify the curses of the most ardent enemies of the cinema and I understood at last what they mean who declare that dramatic action in photograph is obscene because it makes no personal demand upon the onlooker. It occurred to me to wonder how man of these enemies are persons indifferent to music and those to whom music of any kind is a positive nuisance …

Comments: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves.

Hale’s Tours of the World

Source: untitled, The Rinking World & Picture Theatre News, 25 December 1909, p. 14

Text: ‘Hale’s Tours of the World,’ in Oxford Street, hard by Messrs. Gilbey & Co.’s Pantheon, are at once the oldest-established and the most educative of all London’s picture shows. Nothing approaching them has in our day been designed or so effectively carried out. Time was when Hamilton’s Diarama’s were all the rage; these have no worthily supplanted them. Seated in a veritable Pullman car, which appears to be travelling on the ever-present metals through mountainous scenery, over bridges, across vast prairie lands, or Eastern deserts, as the case may be, the illusion is perfect. Not the slightest suspicion of cinematograph lantern rays have the quasi-travellers, for the reason that the views are thrown on the screen from a great distance behind … The conductor of the Pullman Car, who snips the tickets, lectures pleasantly all the time, though in the darkness he remains unseen. Moreover, throughout the imaginary journey, the travellers are treated to pervading sounds as well as sights. The shrill whistle of locomotive and steamboat, the fearsome syren [sic] of an ocean greyhound, the roar of falling waters or tossing sea waves, the pattering of rain, the rolling of thunder, and the shouts of people add a keen zest to the excursion. From a chat with Mr S.B. French, the Secretary, we learned that his company have a contract with the New South Wales Government for the regular supply of films, and also that their operating representatives enjoy a free run on the great American railroads, and on certain British railway systems.

Comments: Hale’s Tours of the World was an entertainment which placed the audience in a replica of a railway carriage, with a film taken from the front of a moving train projected onto a screen at the front of the carriage. The carriage rocked to and fro, there were sound effects, and the conductor served a lecturer to explain the films and the experience. It was invented by the American George Consider Hale and the first Hale’s Tours in Britain opened in London’s Oxford Street in May 1906. It was arguably the first cinema in London (the Daily Bioscope near Liverpool Street station opened the same month), hence the reference to it being the ‘oldest-established’ of London’s picture shows.

Hale’s Tours of the World

Source: untitled, The Rinking World & Picture Theatre News, 25 December 1909, p. 14

Text: ‘Hale’s Tours of the World,’ in Oxford Street, hard by Messrs. Gilbey & Co.’s Pantheon, are at once the oldest-established and the most educative of all London’s picture shows. Nothing approaching them has in our day been designed or so effectively carried out. Time was when Hamilton’s Diarama’s were all the rage; these have no worthily supplanted them. Seated in a veritable Pullman car, which appears to be travelling on the ever-present metals through mountainous scenery, over bridges, across vast prairie lands, or Eastern deserts, as the case may be, the illusion is perfect. Not the slightest suspicion of cinematograph lantern rays have the quasi-travellers, for the reason that the views are thrown on the screen from a great distance behind … The conductor of the Pullman Car, who snips the tickets, lectures pleasantly all the time, though in the darkness he remains unseen. Moreover, throughout the imaginary journey, the travellers are treated to pervading sounds as well as sights. The shrill whistle of locomotive and steamboat, the fearsome syren [sic] of an ocean greyhound, the roar of falling waters or tossing sea waves, the pattering of rain, the rolling of thunder, and the shouts of people add a keen zest to the excursion. From a chat with Mr S.B. French, the Secretary, we learned that his company have a contract with the New South Wales Government for the regular supply of films, and also that their operating representatives enjoy a free run on the great American railroads, and on certain British railway systems.

Comments: Hale’s Tours of the World was an entertainment which placed the audience in a replica of a railway carriage, with a film taken from the front of a moving train projected onto a screen at the front of the carriage. The carriage rocked to and fro, there were sound effects, and the conductor served a lecturer to explain the films and the experience. It was invented by the American George Consider Hale and the first Hale’s Tours in Britain opened in London’s Oxford Street in May 1906. It was arguably the first cinema in London (the Daily Bioscope near Liverpool Street station opened the same month), hence the reference to it being the ‘oldest-established’ of London’s picture shows.

That's the Way it Was

Source: Walter Southgate, That’s the Way it Was: A Working Class Autobiography 1890-1950 (Oxted: New Clarion Press, 1982), pp. 75-79

Text: There were very old houses and shops fronting the Narrow Way of Mare Street opposite the old Hackney Church tower then given up in their old age to such fleeting businesses as wax work shows and salacious picture machines offering the delights of “What the Butler Saw” and “A Night in Paris”.

During my youth I was a regular visitor to the gallery of the Hackney Empire music hall on Monday nights for tuppence … Monday was often a bad days for the halls and so one could get in the gallery for 2d or 3d.

… About the time that the Hackney Music Hall was opened there still existed off the Hackney Road one of the last of the “penny gaffs”. Mayhew describes them as existing in many parts of the metropolis in 1850. “Penny gaffs” had largely disappeared by the 1900s except “The Belmonts”, known locally as “The Flea Pit”. It maintained the tradition of such places right to the very end – colourful, noisy with melodrama and excitement …

… As the old “Flea pit” went out so the silent bioscope came in with a juvenile audience enjoying the blood letting, the shooting and the thundering of horse hooves necessary in a Wild West film. There again the appropriate noises and tempo had to be supplied by a versatile pianist. This fellow sat in the wings playing the same tunes and making the same noises twice nightly, seven days a week.

Comments: Walter Southgate was born in Bethnal Green, London one of seven children. His memoirs include an excellent section on ‘penny gaff’ cheap theatres, a name also given to some of the early cinemas because they were located in the same working class districts and attracted similar audiences. Mare Street is in Hackney, London.

That’s the Way it Was

Source: Walter Southgate, That’s the Way it Was: A Working Class Autobiography 1890-1950 (Oxted: New Clarion Press, 1982), pp. 75-79

Text: There were very old houses and shops fronting the Narrow Way of Mare Street opposite the old Hackney Church tower then given up in their old age to such fleeting businesses as wax work shows and salacious picture machines offering the delights of “What the Butler Saw” and “A Night in Paris”.

During my youth I was a regular visitor to the gallery of the Hackney Empire music hall on Monday nights for tuppence … Monday was often a bad days for the halls and so one could get in the gallery for 2d or 3d.

… About the time that the Hackney Music Hall was opened there still existed off the Hackney Road one of the last of the “penny gaffs”. Mayhew describes them as existing in many parts of the metropolis in 1850. “Penny gaffs” had largely disappeared by the 1900s except “The Belmonts”, known locally as “The Flea Pit”. It maintained the tradition of such places right to the very end – colourful, noisy with melodrama and excitement …

… As the old “Flea pit” went out so the silent bioscope came in with a juvenile audience enjoying the blood letting, the shooting and the thundering of horse hooves necessary in a Wild West film. There again the appropriate noises and tempo had to be supplied by a versatile pianist. This fellow sat in the wings playing the same tunes and making the same noises twice nightly, seven days a week.

Comments: Walter Southgate was born in Bethnal Green, London one of seven children. His memoirs include an excellent section on ‘penny gaff’ cheap theatres, a name also given to some of the early cinemas because they were located in the same working class districts and attracted similar audiences. Mare Street is in Hackney, London.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Excerpt from interview with Henry Elder, C707/71/1-2, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q: Did you go to music-halls?

A: Oh yes. Oh yes. You go – I think I told you the Islington Empire. Yes, the Islington Empire that was the Islington Empire. Yes, that was line up and tuppence to go in. Oh yes.

Q: What about cinemas?

A: Well, the first cinema that ever I went to was the corner of Lime Street and Caledonian Road which is a shop now, and it was no bigger than a shop and it was – a recognised thing for me to be tipped out of there because they used to issue you with a ticket and when you’d seen the programme they come round and collect this coloured ticket when you’d seen the programme. Well, I used to dive underneath the seat to see it – see it again.

Q: What programmes would they be?

A: It – used to have a little sheet up I suppose no bigger – no bigger than six foot square and a bloke’d come round every now and again and squirt water on it and then you’d have cowboys and Indians as well call it – and a bloke with a drum making the bullets. And sometimes the screen used to fall down. Yes, that’s the first place that ever I remember seeing the pictures.

Q: How old would you have been then?

A: Oh, let’s see. I was still at school. About twelve I suppose – about twelve years of age.

Q: Did your parents give you any pocket money?

A: Yes – this is up at – when we done that – a farthing for a farthing worth of sweets.

Comment: Henry Elder was born in 1896 in Swindon Street, Gray’s Inn Road, London. His family then moved to Cumberland Street for 24 years, living in 8-room tenement house shared with other families. His father was musician, who worked in piano manufacturing as a finisher. He was interviewed on 30 October and 2 November 1969, one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975). My grateful thanks to Sam Nightingale of the Islington’s Lost Cinemas site for pointing out that the cinema on ‘Lime Street’ is in fact on the corner of Lion Street. It was the Variety Picture Palace – see http://www.islingtonslostcinemas.com/portfolio/variety-picture-palace.